Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Debut of a Media Column

This week begins an every-other week media column I'll be writing in the Free Times, one of two Cleveland alternative weeklies (and a special welcome to Free Times readers who've never visited before). The
debut column concerns a subject which you may have been reading about elsewhere--the federal government's crackdown on leaks from classified information and grand jury investigations--but which until now has only been mostly a theoretical concern in Northeast Ohio. No longer. The federal corruption trial of Nate Gray and others close to former Cleveland Mayor Mike White, which took place last year in a federal courthouse in Akron, led to several plea agreement as well as a conviction of Gray. He's now appealing.

But the case has also had a fascinating postscript, as the judge and the prosecution try to learn how certain sealed documents leaked out into the media, eventually landing in articles in the Scene and, a day later, the Plain Dealer. As the column explains, the special prosecutors in this case are likely to subpoena reporters, setting the stage for what would no doubt be a case of legal trench warfare.
The owners of both the Plain Dealer and Scene have a history of aggressively protecting their work from legal tampering.

It couldn't be a more appropriate time to put a spotlight on this tawdry (and sadly increasing) practice of trying to pry sources out of members of the media, just a day after we celebrated the 230th birthday of a nation whose founders put freedom of the press at the center of our system's checks and balances on government tyranny. The Supreme Court last visited this subject way back in 1972, when the justices were considerably more media-friendly, establishing what's come to be called a "qualified privilege" for media, which kind of/sometime protects them from having to testify about sources. This half shield has been a source of debate ever since.

This case will be closely watched, perhaps even around the country, and I was glad to be able to get onto the record the first substantial look at where it may be headed. I hope (and expect) others will keep a watch on this, while I go on to many other issues. And god knows, there's never been a better time to write about media developments. Nearly everything is now in flux, with new media changing consumption habits and old business models morphing into giant question marks about who will underwrite serious reporting, and how. I've been lucky enough to have been in the middle of some of these developments, and thus see at least as much cause for optimism as for concern. I plan to follow all of this ferment--the media equivalent of what an economist named Joseph Schumpeter famously called creative destruction--and try my best to explain what it might portend for the public, and perhaps even for democracy.

12 Comments:

At 12:52 PM, Blogger Jill said...

Thanks for mentioning this, John. Good luck.

 
At 12:56 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Jill, you always seem somehow to be first to comment. Thanks, as always, for visiting.

 
At 2:27 PM, Blogger Wordsanctuary said...

I'll be interested to read your new column!

 
At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Doug Mazanec said...

Congrats on the new column John. Always good to read more of your work. Between your blog, book reviews and FreeTimes pieces, not to mention your many comments on other blogs, you are quite the busy scribe.

 
At 4:21 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Maria and Doug, thanks for stopping by. And Doug, if that's the only writing I was doing, I'd surely have been in debtor's prison long ago. But all of these projects work together nicely, and keep my writing fingers active and independent. And that's a wonderful thing. As always, thanks for reading and especially for commenting. I believe this is your first time commenting, Doug. It's much appreciated.

 
At 6:13 PM, Blogger steveg said...

Oh, that's why I'm almost in debtor's prison...

 
At 7:55 PM, Anonymous MilesB said...

Good job on the new column, John. Looking forward to more in the future.

And here's hoping we can all stay out of debtor's prison, or at least, if we do get in, form a scribe gang.

 
At 10:11 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Steve, I sympathize with you. Just keep plugging away, and it'll happen. I'm just glad that another longtime email/phone correspondent pal has decided to come visit and leave a comment for the first time. Please keep us posted on your poetry reading schedule. I'd love to come next time.

And Miles, just be happy that debtor's prison was abolished decades ago. Now all you have to deal with is those pesky bill collectors calling hourly.

 
At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Lou said...

John,
Does the subject focus of the articles in the Free Times move from front to back? Start with City Chatter, move to Media Hound, then to The Joint, then News of the Weird, and then finallya 900 number? Great article, looking forward to getting together soon.

 
At 12:50 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

John,

I'm playing catch up on these media disclosure issues--is there a layman's guide to journalism ethics that you can recommend?

If the West Wing was a reasonable portrayal of the symbiotic relationship between the executive branch and the media, I'm amazed at the hypocrisy in the administration's outrage about disclosure of classified info. Can't wait to see how you follow these type of issues in your new Free Times column.

 
At 3:38 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Lou,
The FT does seem to be layed out from front to back in terms of seriousness. And I sure wouldn't want to be lost back there with the smut ads, so I'm thankful to be up front. And I'm looking forward to catching up too.

Anne, you make a great point about the symbiotic relationship (ordinarily) between government and media. And yes, West Wing (at least in its golden era, when Aaron Sorkin wrote the scripts) is reasonably realistic, if idealized, portrayal of how that all works. But even more to your point, it's utterly absurd for the Bushies to cry about leaks after the world learned via the Valerie Plame investigation that it was actually the White House that very carefully orchestrated that leak. And of course there have been lots of others in this administration and preceding ones, they were just generally less well-documented.

As for your question about laymen's guides to journalism ethics, there are of course mountains of that kind of material I could point you to. But of course that subject is a little larger than the precise issue we're zeroing in on here, which is less about ethics per se, and more about the legalities at the intersection of media protection of sources and the judicial system's right to uncover those sources when they impinge on legal cases. So let me chew on that some and perhaps I can send you some links privately, via email. I really appreciate your interest and curiosity, though.

 
At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

Thanks, John. You're one of the smartest people I (barely) know. :)

 

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